Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Nurse Shark in Sydney Aquarium

"Always wear sun block: Sydney is the world capital of skin cancer, swim between the flags and stay away from the spiders." This was Gary's advice before leaving us to our first day in Australia. Twenty four hours later we had already our first meeting with the local fauna. Sara deserves honorary citizenship after the baptism of Tasmanian Sea. After just five minutes on Coogee Beach she was stung by a Bluebottle, a jellyfish (or rather a 'Colony of medusoids' as the sour puff in Wylies Baths pointed out "It's not dangerous!"), known even as 'Portuguese Man O'War'. Forty minutes of screams, ammonia and cortisone later, the child started to finally calm down. Today she is fine again and proudly displays a fire-red bracelet around the lower part of her right leg as an original form of body art. Not bad as a first day, even if it could have been worse... a lot worse in fact!

Despite the fact that they are really everywhere and the most common terror associated with Australia, sharks are responsible of just one fatality per year (apparently all Japanese tourists). As far as flamboyant killers are concerned, Australians talk with much more respect of salties, the crocodiles that live at the estuaries of rivers. A few years ago there was a particularly cranky one somewhere near Darwin. One day, bothered by the engines of big off shores, he bit one and took away the whole back part of the boat. After the incident, they decided to put him to a better use and now he is stuffed and on display in a museum. Into his open jaws can comfortably walk in a man of medium height.

The ones that statistically do the biggest damage are the insects. Amongst my favourites: "Red Back", a small (-ish!) spider belonging to the family of the Black Widow, found in gardens and houses. A single bite will send you to hospital or, failing to find an antidote, to the other world. "Sydney Funnel Web Spider", even worse but they assure me it's not that common to meet one. While the Red Back behaves like a normal spider, biting only when threatened, the Funnel Web is aggressive and often comes for you. The antidote was only recently discovered and since then there haven't been any deaths associated with this spider.

Two more cute marine creatures that will kill you as quick as look at you are the 'Box Jelly Fish", a small one but carrying a mortal venom and the "Blue Ringed Octopus", an octopus that carries enough venom to kill twenty adults in a few minutes. In the right season, both of these creatures are carried to shore by the waves and they can be found on the beach. I start asking myself if we'll be able to survive the next three months!

More Photos...

... and from the water!

Sydney Harbour from the ferry

... and from Ludi and Gary's balcony.

THE Picture...

... from different points of view.

Sydney Harbour Bridge

Opera House from Circular Quay

... from Botanic Gardens


... and again!

Randwick Residents

Another ten hour flight, Qantas this time and boy, were we impressed!, and without even realizing it we find ourselves in the second part of the trip. The lack of jet lag is a welcome change. The welcome committee came to collect us in Sydney Airport: Ludi and Gary came to meet us and after a glass of wine, obviously Australian, left us to take possession of the two rooms plus balcony that for the next few weeks we'll call home. At last we emptied the suitcases and put our things in cupboards and drawers. Nina and Sara rediscovered TV and all the cartoons they normally watch back home. The washing machine is already overworked. We are on Alison Road, in the quarter of Randwick, 20 minutes by bus from Circular Quay and 10 from Coogee beach. It's raining at the moment, but it is still hot and from the window opened on the communal garden we have already heard the first kookaburra laugh. The atmosphere is no different from many inner suburbs of London or Wexford Street in Dublin. On Belmore Road, which we discovered today, coffee shops, Lebanese, Chinese and Thai take-aways alternate to laundrettes, travel agencies and small corner shops. Grannies with their shopping trolleys, children eating ice-creams and backpackers stroll in the street, in and out of the shops. Despite the unmissable Vodafone Shop, the quarter has a very authentic atmosphere, of a place where people really live, love and work, not like an antiseptic, anonymous shopping centre. We did our shopping on foot, buying from the baker, the local green grocers that has a huge variety of tropical fruit and veggies rarely seen before. We had our first latte and made the first discoveries: a sushi bar and a shop selling Italian goods like buffalo mozzarella and Parma ham. Even Nina and Sara helped us carrying the bags. Once back home, we had dinner on the balcony and after having cooked for the first time in three weeks, we can say we have definitely settled into our new Australian life.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Five Pills to Survive China

And we are nearly at the end of the first stop, all in one piece and within budget. After having seen the Bund, the French Concession, Pearl Tower and the old city, the last thrill that Shanghai has to offer will be the Maglev Train (some are more excited than others), the magnetic levitation train that will take us to Pudong International Airport. After having kicked the cases in a fit of rage (mine) in Yichang Airport, finally we got rid of some stuff and sent home the first parcel. I am more and more convinced that the only essential things are passport and credit cards, the rest is useless. Even more, it's a burden. Anything can be bought and abandoned on the way.

Having said that, now a few lines to share the wisdom of three weeks in China:

1) Public toilets are disgusting and the place is in general very polluted. I don't have the numbers, and probably the official ones differ from the real ones a great deal, but they must be dying by the thousands of respiratory problems caused by the poisonous air of the big cities.

2) To avoid the curse of Shi Huang Di, never put into your mouth water that is not boiled or bought, not even to brush your teeth. Eat only where the locals do, even in the streets, but avoid any kind of raw food. Westerner cuisine is available almost everywhere (even chains like Pizza Hut, Starbucks, McDonald's etc), but it costs like in Europe and it is neither as clean nor as tasty as the local one.

3) Even if they spit everywhere and they really do not know how to queue, (they'll try to stampede you but if you complain firmly they politely stand aside), Chinese people are very open and curious about foreigners. We never felt threatened or in danger, not even in the dodgy parts of Beijing or Shanghai, maybe because they have a more refined, almost elegant way of stealing money from us laowei=foreigners... that brings me to the next point:

4) Always haggle every price, in shops, but even restaurants, hotels and taxis:

"How much to take me to the airport?"
"90, and if you make me miss my plane I won't give you even those!!!"
"OK, 90."
Even this way, as soon as you lower your guard, and in three weeks it has happened only too often, they take you for a ride.

5) Very few speak English, the little they speak is a more or less incomprehensible form of Chinglish. Even signs and information are rarely translated. DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS AT HOME WITHOUT SOME CHINESE!! All the independent travelers we met had at least a bit of Chinese.

Unless you have some specific reasons, like a timetable similar to our own, avoid winter and summer as the weather is extreme.

Hotels, hostels and guesthouses:
Beijing: Novotel Xinqiao
Xi'an; Bell Tower Hotel
Chengdu: Sim's Cozy Guesthouse
Yangtze: Victoria Cruise
Shanghai: The Seventh Heaven
The only cash machine who speaks English: Bank of China
Chain of Japanese restaurants cheap and clean: Ramen Ajisien
For the first time the Rough Guide disappointed us. Imprecise and not up to date, we often had to improvise.

The heroes of our three weeks in China:
Beiyan who prevented a disaster by booking our transfers from Beijing to Xi'an, Xi'an-Chengdu, Yichang-Shanghai.
Jolin from Yatour that called on the phone to fill in the gaps in Brendan's Chinese that blocked the queue at the ticket office in the station, helped us to book the train from Chengdu to Chongqing.
Luther from Victoria Cruise, who let us out from the engine room of the ship and shouted for a taxi before we even docked, allowing us not to miss the plane for Shanghai.
Sim, because whoever can offer a bed and hot water for 5 euro per night, practically free food and make a profit, deserves to be a hero!
Brendan, 'wo de laogong', without whose irritating talent for speaking foreign languages we would have never survived 3 weeks of China without a scratch.

Thanks to all of those who left a comment, above all the new arrivals: Mauro, Luigi and Silvia, but even Max, Luz, Gio, Mamma, Ivan and Giangi. As soon as I'll be out from behind the Firewall I'll start to reply to everybody :-)

Next post from Sydney

Beijing: The Forbidden City

Tea House in Chengdu

Dian Dian

"How many of these will I have to kiss?!"

Shanghai: View from the Seventh Heaven

Loonie in Beijing Tea House


Pannacotta Warriors

The thing we just can't get over as far as the children are concerned is their normal behaviour. All in all, they seem to be the same, just like at home. After having fallen asleep a couple of times with their heads on the table, they got over the jet lag quicker than us. They are pleasantly surprised by the interest they generate in the locals but every now and again they complain about somebody who goes too far hugging them without permission to take a photo.
They eat more or less anything, baozi and Gong Bao chicken becaming their favourites, but given the chance they still prefer to go to McDonald's and sometimes we give in and take them there. After one of the first days, when coming back from the Great Wall we had to get off a bus in an unknown suburb of Beijing and strip Sara in the middle of the road with -5C because she couldn't keep it in anymore. They are learning not only to eat but even to go to the toilet when possible rather than when they'd like to. In general, they have learned to exercise patience because in this kind of situation, often they can't satisfy a need when it arises the same way they would at home. They walk for kilometres in the cold and the rain, they don't complain about the limited wardrobe, asking to change their vest only when it smells of Pringles.
Whenever we go out in busy cities, they latch onto our hands and don't let go until we get back to our hotel. For now they seem happy enough with our company and don't look for their friends, even if they have already sent a few emails and written a couple of blog entries for their classes. Nina acquired a passion for flea markets and haggling, Sara still prefers big department stores. They do their homework, they read Harry Potter and the Famous Five, they play with their Nintendo DSs and bicker, like at home. They are curious and interested in the new things they see, but they are more concerned with what they'll have for dessert, exactly like at home.


We have so far seen many examples of Chinglish but this one stands out:

After we spent the morning looking for a phantom tourist bus that should have taken us for a trip around the city, we arrived to Chenghuang Miao, another Chinatown for Chinese, where Brendan insisted in going for lunch to a place that according to the Book of Lies served authentic food. The girls and I, tired, cold, wet, and glancing longingly at a McDonalds, reluctantly followed him. When we finally arrived at our destination, we found this sign on a window of a canteen where people pushed their way through a crowd to get in:

"Dumplings stuffed with the ovary and digestive glands of a crad"

After a general mutiny we ended up in Kentucky Fried Chicken.